We floated on a houseboat in rivulets off the Southern coast of India in the state of Kerala. Just a fisherman and a chef accompanied us. They only spoke Malayalam of course, but with my little bit of Hindi and their little bit of English, we got by. It was a 2 night trip and one of the most memorable. Bypassing homes of those that lived on the rough banks, we daytime-napped in the sunshine on the boat, waking up to cocktails and tropical fruits. As the sun set, the two-person crew would catch pomfret bare-handedly and fry them up. Gourmet meals set on a tablecloth. More cocktails. Empty thoughts. It was just the two of us, our first trip back to India as a married couple. We spent 6 weeks there, traveling over so many regions, visiting over 100 relatives. But that backwaters trip in Kerala and the rest of Kerala itself were a highlight of all of my trips back to India.
That trip was really when I first tasted Keralan cuisine. As a Gujarati born in Houston, there wasn’t much exposure as a child for me to most other regional cuisines, either in the home, or in restaurants. The food of Kerala is highlighted by coconut in all its versatility; curry leaves and chilies equally hold value, and of course so do many of the typical Indian spices like turmeric, black pepper, and cumin. As a coastal state, the seafood dishes abound. We tasted so many seafood curries and such variety! One classic traditional dish is the fish molee, a fish curry/stew with coconut milk, curry leaves, and spices. We had this street side, in restaurants, and in fancy hotels. And it was always made with just-caught fish.
Here in Austin, a land of good food though no sea, I found some wild-caught-yet-shipped halibut at Central Market (you can ask them to cube it for you) and I also grabbed a nob of fresh turmeric. We are so lucky to have fresh turmeric available to us in Austin, but most Indian cooks use the dried version, the golden powder of health, the ancient healing spice. Because I’m keeping current with all the research on healing spices and more, I decided to use BOTH the dried and the fresh turmeric in this dish, though you don’t need the fresh if you don’t have access to it. By the way, I’m co-teaching a culinary medicine class this Spring just on turmeric itself and all of its culinary applications AND the science-backed research behind it. And we will have so much to share as we will just have returned from a Health and Nutrition conference!
Meanwhile, make this recipe, and know that it tastes good, can heal you, and can take you on a backwater trip to wherever you want to be.
- 1 pound halibut, cubed into 1-inch pieces, leaving skin on
- ½ teaspoon ground dried turmeric mixed with ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil (or can use 1 tablespoon coconut and 1 tablespoon safflower)
- ¼ teaspoon cumin seed
- ¼ teaspoon brown or black mustard seeds
- 2 stems curry leaves (about 10-15 leaves, more if very small), optional
- ½ red onion, sliced
- 1 green chili (Serrano or Thai bird), quartered lengthwise
- 1 inch piece fresh turmeric root, peeled
- 1 inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled
- 4 fresh garlic cloves
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 8 ounces (or 250 milliliters) unsweetened coconut milk
- ¼ cup chopped cilantro (optional)
- Sprinkle the turmeric-salt blend over the fish cubes and rub on with your hands or a spoon. Set aside.
- Heat oil in a Dutch oven or medium-sized nonstick pot over medium heat.
- Pan-fry the fish pieces skin-side down, setting the pieces one by one gently with tongs into the hot oil. Let the pieces sit for about a minute and then check to see if they release on their own (this means they are ready to flip over; the skin will start to curl up on its sides). Flip pieces over gently one by one and cook for another minute. Remove pieces to a plate and set aside.
- To the same pot (the remaining oil will be yellow-tinged) add the cumin seeds and fry for a few seconds. Do not allow blackening. Add the mustard seeds and when the mustard seeds begin to pop, immediately add curry leaves to the pot (beware they will splatter so keep a lid nearby).
- Lower the heat, and then stir in onions. Add the chili (seeds and all). Use the full chili if you want it spicy!
- Cook for 5 minutes on low heat.
- Meanwhile, combine the fresh turmeric, fresh ginger, and garlic cloves in a mortar pestle (or a food processor OR grate them all into a small pile). If using the mortar, sprinkle in a pinch of salt and mash to a coarse paste. Add paste to the onions and stir.
- Stir in black pepper, coriander, cumin and salt to the pot. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Pour in the coconut milk and add ¼ cup water. Stir well and cook for a few minutes.
- Gently add fish pieces to the pot. You can swirl the pot around but halibut is a firm enough fish that it shouldn’t break down if handled gently. Cook the fish in the curry for a few minutes. Serve hot over/next to steaming basmati rice. Sprinkle with cilantro if desired.